Editorial | Why not bite the COVID bullet now?
DESPITE A loophole for it to do something else, the expectation is that the Government will further tighten the COVID-19 protocols when the restrictions it announced on Monday are reviewed in a fortnight’s time. At least, that is the takeaway for most people from Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ remarks when he unveiled the latest regime.
Underlining this latest waving of the red flag is a fear that Jamaica may be entering a so-called third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Infections have been rising in the month since curfew hours were eased and the restrictions on gatherings relaxed. “What we are seeing (now), in two weeks’ time it will probably be worse,” Mr Holness said.
In light of that observation, there are obvious questions about why the Government opted for a piecemeal process at this time. The greater logic, it seems, would have been to bite the bullet upfront.
In the new measures, the Government extended the weekday curfews by three hours, starting at 8 p.m., rather than 11 p.m., until five in the morning. They will begin at 3 p.m. on Sundays. Additionally, entertainment venues, which were allowed to accommodate 70 per cent of their capacity, have been told to reduce their numbers to 50 per cent. At smaller events, a maximum of 100 people will remain, or 50 per cent (down from 60 per cent) of the capacity of the venue – whichever is less.
Among the drivers of these impositions are the more than 1,300 new COVID-19 cases reported so far in July; recent positivity rates from COVID-19 tests are in the high double digits; and a reproductive rate of the virus of 1.4 per cent, compared to the less than one per cent that epidemiologists say is necessary to contain the virus. Additionally, there are signs of a rise in some regions; hospitalisation rates, though not yet chronic, are worrying. All of this is happening although the Delta variant, considered a more efficacious spreader of COVID-19, has not yet been detected in Jamaica. Health experts, however, say that it is almost inevitable that it will arrive.
The strategic aim of the Government’s new measures is to slow the spread of the virus ahead of the new school year in September. It hopes to establish an environment in which a significant return to in-class teaching is practicable. Given the disruption of the education system during the past two school years – with tens of thousands of students having fallen behind or totally absent from the formal learning process – that is an important objective. It has the support of this newspaper.
However, Mr Holness, who, we believe, has access to sound scientific advice, seems to believe that what is now being done will not be enough. Hence his warning of likely tougher measures at the August 11 review.
On that basis, it is not unreasonable that the prime minister should provide the deeper logic to his reasoning. If the science says that tighter, more rigid shutdowns yield better results, it would seem that it would be better to absorb the impact of those measures now, giving the country an additional two weeks of these strong containment efforts and, presumably, a better circumstance closer to the start of the school year. It should also mean less stress on the healthcare system.
There is another practical reason why a harder bite of the bullet makes sense now, rather than two weeks down the road: the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. So far, just under 303,000 AstraZeneca vaccines have been administered in Jamaica. With the requirement of two shots to be fully vaccinated, theoretically that is sufficient for less than six per cent of the population. The Government says that its target to achieve national herd immunity is the vaccination of 65 per cent of Jamaicans.
Vaccine hesitancy notwithstanding, the Government’s greater problem has been its inability to secure the drugs in sufficiency. Supplies have been unavailable.
However, Jamaica seems to be about to have a breakthrough. Within days, a gift of 300,000 doses of the AstraZeneca product is expected from the United Kingdom, and in August 100,000-plus doses are expected under the COVAX Facility. By the end of September, the Americans should donate over 600,000 doses. Indeed, the health minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, estimates that over the next nine weeks, about 1.4 million doses of vaccines should arrive on the island.
If taken up, these vaccines, even only a single dose, should give a large number of Jamaicans some cover. But it would be good if fewer of us were sick ahead of the vaccine roll-out. None of this, of course, is a call for an absolute lockdown of the country, preventing people from pursuing their livelihoods, or absolving citizens from personal responsibility.
However, it makes little sense for the Government to forewarn of a problem around the corner and signal the solution to be used then, rather than employing the fix before the crisis occurs.